Britain’s NHS was once idolized. Now its worst ever crisis is fueling a boom in private health care


Tens of thousands of nurses and around 12,000 ambulance workers went on strike on Monday over pay and working conditions in the biggest walkout in the 75-year history of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS).

The escalating industrial action comes after years of falling wages, stretched budgets and staff shortages that have left the NHS in a state of crisis, with waiting times for treatment at record highs. At the same time, an aging population needs its services more than ever.

This unfortunate mix is ​​fueling an ever-wider demand for private healthcare from the UK population – a radical change for a nation with one of the world’s most famous figures. Universal health system.

“Our providers are telling us that people are going private, many for the first time, and the main factor driving that is a challenge in accessing NHS care,” said David Furness, Independent Healthcare Providers Network. Policy Director of , an industry body. Private health care companies.

At the end of November, a record 7.2 million patients in England were waiting for non-urgent medical treatment on the NHS, known as “elective” care. This includes diagnostic tests and scans, procedures such as hip and knee replacements, but also cardiac surgery, cancer treatment and neurosurgery.

According to figures from NHS England, more than half of those on the list were waiting 18 weeks and almost 400,000 patients were waiting more than a year.

To avoid being on a waiting list, more and more people are paying for their own medical care or taking out health insurance.

According to the Private Healthcare Information Network, in the second quarter of 2022, the number of patients paying directly for private hospital care increased by 34% to 67,000 compared to the same period in 2019, the highest in the UK. Collects data about the private health care of

The figures show a 184 per cent increase in the number of people paying privately for hip replacements, a 153 per cent increase in self-pay for knee replacements and a 42 per cent increase in private cataract surgery. The percentage increased.

To keep up with the growing demand for their services, private healthcare providers are expanding rapidly.

US group Cleveland Clinic plans to open its third UK facility in London later this year, joining the 184-bed hospital and six-storey clinic that opened in the capital in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

HCA Healthcare (HCA), another US group with more than 30 facilities in London and Manchester, will open a £100 million ($120 million) private hospital in Birmingham. – Britain’s second largest city – later this year.

London Bridge Hospital, one of the UK's largest private hospitals managed by HCA Healthcare.

And Spire Healthcare, one of the UK’s largest private hospital groups, is adding new clinics, theaters and beds across the country as it races to keep up with demand.

CEO Justin Ash It is estimated that the private healthcare market in the UK has doubled since before the pandemic to 15 million people.

“Our single biggest challenge is how to treat the volume of patients coming our way,” he said.

The group plans to open two new clinics in 2023, which are faster than hospitals and designed for procedures that don’t require an overnight stay – for example, ophthalmology, In Pathology and Dermatology.

Spire is also pushing into primary care services, citing demand for face-to-face appointments with general practitioners. In December, it acquired The Doctors Clinic Group, a network of 22 private GP clinics with a strong presence in central London.

Ash said the appetite for private health care Covers a much wider range of ages and incomes than in the past.

“It’s not the super rich. It’s ordinary people choosing to go private, and that’s a change,” he said.

One such patient is Emma Frith, a website administrator. She decided to take out private medical insurance after waiting nine months to see an NHS specialist.

“That’s what really triggered it: the idea that I wanted to be able to get help instead of just waiting and waiting and waiting,” she explained. “If I was in pain or suffering, it would be a real problem,” she said of her thoughts at the time.

In November, Frith, 58, and her 55-year-old husband, Peter, a photographer, got private medical insurance for the first time in their lives.

Their story is reflected in data from health insurers. Bupa added 150,000 new UK health insurance customers in 2022, while rival VitalityHealth has seen a 20% increase in customers over the past year to more than 900,000.

“We expect the growth we’ve seen in health insurance uptake to continue into 2023,” said Neville Koopowitz, CEO of Vitality UK.

He added that this is because people are undoubtedly turning to private healthcare to ensure that they have immediate access to high-quality care if they fall ill. .

Nursing staff and supporters march from University College Hospital to Downing Street on January 18, 2023 in London, England.

Friths, who is self-employed, said reducing time off work with ill-health was a key factor in his decision-making, particularly the long waiting times for appointments on the NHS.

According to the Office for National Statistics, record numbers of Britons are leaving the workforce due to long-term illness, a problem partly attributed to long waiting times for NHS treatment.

This is an issue of increasing concern to employers. A recent Savanta poll of more than 1,000 businesses by the Independent Healthcare Providers Network found that more than half are concerned that increasing NHS waiting times will result in staff being permanently redundant due to long absences or sickness. Can leave work.

And one in five said they were considering offering private medical insurance to their employees in the coming year.

With the NHS predicting that waiting times will take years to come down, demand for private healthcare in the UK continues to grow.

In the long term, there are questions about whether the NHS is sustainable in its current form, offering comprehensive free healthcare to all funded entirely by taxes, particularly Against a backdrop of growing population and strained government finances.

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the NHS is already the largest single item of public spending in the UK, with ONS figures showing healthcare spending is around 12% of GDP.

Some experts fear that a move away from a universal NHS would lead to a two-tier health system where the wealthy pay for private care, leaving them unable to return to work and lead a normal life. enabling them to start up more quickly than those who are less healthy and forced to rely on limited public services.

“The risk is less of sudden privatization and more of the emergence of something resembling the English education system — where the best education is often conditional on ability to pay,” researchers at the Institute for Public Policy Research wrote in a think tank. A report from last year.

He added, “If this becomes the new normal…

But Ashes of Aspire Healthcare has a less dystopian view of the future. “We have clearly moved into a world in which we are all NHS patients but have episodes of private care,” he said.

It is “a million miles from the American system,” he added. There is no universal health care in the US. And most people have private health insurance because health care is so expensive.

“There’s a huge commitment to the NHS. You can’t underestimate that,” Ash said.

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